A tiny corner geographically, the Dutch Republic during the seventeenth century made an immense impression on Europe and the wider world. With a population of around two million, only about one tenth that of France, its strength in shipping, trade, finance, and technology helped it become a major European land and sea power and a preeminent colonial empire, especially in Asia but also in South and West Africa and the Americas. In painting, engraving, and a range of other arts it eclipsed every other nation. Yet it was not its wealth or power or artistic splendor that chiefly impressed contemporaries but rather Dutch society’s highly innovative character, its difference from the others in almost every way. One modern historian with considerable justification dubbed it the “New World of the Dutch Republic.”1
Even the most casual visitors, whether they were British, French, German, or Italian, were struck by the unfamiliarity, originality, and effectiveness of nearly everything they saw. What the Dutch had that no one else then possessed to a comparable degree was a highly urbanized society based on a social system in which neither nobility nor servile dependence any longer played a significant part; and individual liberty, religious toleration, and a freedom of expression, including freedom of the press, prevailed to an extent unmatched even by England until after the “Glorious Revolution” of 1688—which was itself initiated by William III (1650–1702), the Prince of Orange and the presiding figure of Dutch politics at the time. These Dutch freedoms went together with a republican constitution, albeit one with a hereditary and monarchical strand in the form of the stadholderate, a presiding office held by the princes of Orange.
In the cities of the United Provinces, as the republic was officially known, individual freedom and careful regulation of banking, insurance, and commercial practice ensured that free-market forces were cultivated in an orderly manner. Financial markets strictly supervised by the city governments, first and foremost Amsterdam, had created a maritime, trading, and financial system with a dynamism and global reach that the world had never seen before. Many commercial and financial institutions new in seventeenth-century London, including the stock exchange, were based on models developed in Amsterdam earlier in the century.
Although educated visitors usually mixed their admiration with a hearty dose of scorn for Dutch society’s legalized egalitarianism, lack of respect for monarchy and aristocracy, absence of clearly demarcated social hierarchy, and unparalleled weakness of ecclesiastical authority, everyone was curious about and often envious of the country’s manifest successes. Most visitors realized that there was much they could learn from the Dutch and usefully apply back home. “Adoptions and assimilations of Dutch ideas and mores” by the English, we are frequently reminded in…
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